Fire Ordeal
The fire ordeal is of great antiquity and probably arose from
the concept of the purifying influence of fire. Among the Hindus,
from the earliest times until comparatively recently, those
who were suspected of wrongdoing were required to prove
their guilt or innocence by walking over red-hot iron. If they
escaped unharmed their innocence was proved beyond a
doubt. In the great Hindu religious epic the Ramayana, after
Sita, wife of Rama, has been rescued from the demon Ravana,
Sita proves her purity by the fire ordeal. The priestesses of Cappodocian
goddess Diana Parasya walked barefoot on red-hot
coals, attributing their invulnerability to the powers of the divinity.
In Europe, trial by fire was of two kinds—traversing the
flames, or undergoing the ordeal of hot iron. The latter comprised
carrying red-hot irons in the hand, walking over iron
bars or glowing ploughshares, and thrusting the hand into a
red-hot gauntlet. An early instance of the former trial method
in European history was the case of Pierre Barthelémy, who in
1097 declared to the Crusaders that heaven had revealed to
him the place where the spear that had pierced the Savior’s
body was concealed. To prove his assertion he offered to undergo
the ordeal by fire and was duly required to walk a path
about a foot in width and some fourteen feet in length, on either
side of which were piled blazing olive branches. The judgment
of the fire was unfavorable, and 12 days later the rash adventurer
died in agony.
Books were also sometimes submitted to trial by fire. This
method was adopted to decide the claims of the Roman and
Mozaratian liturgies, the former emerging victorious from the
flames. The fire ordeal was also widely known in New Zealand,
India, Fiji, and Japan.
In may be suspected that the outcome of such ordeals was
not always left to the gods. There is no doubt that the ancient
Egyptians were acquainted with substances that rendered the
body temporarily impervious to fire. Albertus Magnus gives a
recipe for this purpose. The concoction was made up of powdered
lime made into a paste with the white of an egg, radish
juice, marshmallow juice, and fleabane seeds. A first coat of this
mixture was applied to the body and allowed to dry, then a second
coat was applied. If the feet were constantly oiled or moistened
with sulphuric acid they could be rendered impervious.
Possibly the ancients were not unaware of the fire-resistant
properties of asbestos.
The fire ordeal persisted into relatively modern times as one
of the phenomena of Spiritualism. The famous medium D. D.
Home frequently handled live coals and laid them on a handkerchief
without damaging the material in the least. On one occasion
he enclosed a glowing coal in his hands and blew upon
it until it became white-hot.
In an account given by a Mrs. Honeywood and the Master
of Lindsay of a séance with the same medium, Home took a
chimney from a lighted lamp and put it into the fire—making
it so hot that a match applied to it ignited instantly—and then
thrust it into his mouth, touching it with his tongue, without
any apparent ill effects. Another account stated that Home
placed his face right into the fire among the burning coals,
‘‘moving it about as though bathing it in water.’’ Other mediums
in England and America emulated this feat with some
measure of success.
It has been suggested that the state of trance generally accompanying
such exploits, and corresponding to the ecstasy of
the shaman performing a similar feat, may produce an anesthesia
like insensibility to the pain of burning. How skin remains
unscorched and a handkerchief unmarked by burning coals,
however, is not easy to say.
Contemporary Fire Walking
Fire walking is still practiced in many parts of the world, including
India, Pakistan, Japan, Malaya, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa,
and Tahiti. Fire walkers believe that their faith protects them
from injury and undergo the ordeal for purification, to fulfill
vows, or to prove innocence. In 1935 Harry Price arranged a
scientific investigation of fire walking in Surrey, England, with
the cooperation of Kuda Bux, a Moslem from Kashmir. The
tests were successful, but two volunteers who attempted the
walk suffered blisters on the feet. Price concluded that the secret
of fire walking involved three factors the short contact
time of each foot on the glowing embers (with a limit of two
steps per foot); the low thermal conductivity of burning or
burned wood embers; and confidence and steadiness in walking.
Interest in fire walking has been revived in the second half
of the twentieth century. The 50-year-old film made by Harry
Price of his investigation of Kuda Bux’s fire walking was reproduced
on the British television series Arthur C. Clarke’s World of
Strange Powers. A discussion of timely experiments and theories
concerning scientific aspects of the subject followed the airing
of the film. Various experiments were also detailed in the accompanying
book to the series by John Fairley and Simon Welfare,
Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1984). One notable
citation was the work of Jearl Walker, professor of physics
at Cleveland State University, Ohio. Walker had studied fire
walking and was particularly intrigued by the research of Johann
Gottlieb Leidenfrost, a German doctor who published a
paper on the properties of water in 1756. Leidenfrost observed
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Fire Ordeal
that if water was dropped onto a very hot surface, the drops
danced about for a longer period than if the surface was cooler.
Walker’s own experiments showed that at 2100° centigrade the
drops would last a minute or more on a hot surface, whereas
they would evaporate in a few seconds at a lower temperature.
Walker also discovered that the water drops were kept from
contact with the hot surface by a thin vapor layer. He concluded
that this ‘‘Leidenfrost effect’’ must be the secret of fire walking—that
at a high temperature perspiration on the fire walker’s
feet forms a protective layer long enough to prevent injury.
Walker was courageous enough to put his theories to a personal
test. He constructed a five-foot bed of hot coals in his back
garden. He stated, ‘‘I suddenly found it remarkably easy to believe
in physics when it is on paper, but remarkably hard to believe
in it when the safety of one’s own feet is at stake.’’ Nevertheless,
he later reported, ‘‘Clutching my faded copy of
Halliday & Resnick’s Physics in one hand, I strode over the five
feet of hot coals. Apparently I am a true believer in physics. I
have to report, however, that my feet did get a bit hot.’’
A German scientific team from Adubingen subsequently investigated
the annual fire-walk ceremony at Langadhas, in
northern Greece. The ceremony is held on May 21 each year
at the festival of St. Constantine and St. Catherine to celebrate
the traditional belief that Emperor Constantine successfully removed
sacred relics from a burning church without injury to
himself. In May 1980 the scientific team ensured that the fire
was four yards long, with some two inches of hot coals with a
surface temperature of 5000° Celsius. Three of the fire walkers
agreed to have electrodes taped to their heads to secure an
electroencephalogram (EEG), with thermocouples on their feet
to give temperature readings. Both records were relayed from
a backpack transmitter to the scientists with EEG recorder and
tape recorder for temperature readings.
Two significant results were noted. First, although the surface
of the fire was 5000°, the soles of the walkers’ feet recorded
only 1800°; second, increased theta activity was registered in
the brain during the fire walk. Unfortunately a definitive physical
explanation of the phenomenon of fire immunity proved
elusive; when two of the scientific team ventured the fire walk,
they suffered third-degree burns.
Evidence that immunity in fire walking is due solely to religious
faith is also inconclusive. In 1982 a team of doctors and
students from the medical faculty at Colombo University, Sri
Lanka, took part in an extraordinary event designed to highlight
the superiority of medical science to magic and superstition.
As well as sponsoring vasectomies for family planning and
medical treatment for snake-bite and venereal disease, the doctors
staged demonstrations of fire walking. These deliberately
flouted religious taboos as the doctors ate pork and imbibed alcohol
(both forbidden by religion) while walking on red-hot
coals without harm. The intention was to show that such fire
immunity is a scientific phenomenon and not related to spiritual
Another interesting case, quoted by Arthur C. Clarke and
his co-authors, was that of Methodist minister Jon Munday
from Katonan, New York, who took part in a fire walk in 1970
at the summer ashram retreat of Swami Vishnudevananda
near Montreal, Canada. Munday described how he prepared
himself by ‘‘chaotic meditation’’—a combination of dancing,
singing, and meditation—before joining others in a fire walk.
Munday stated, ‘‘I didn’t feel like I’d gone into a trance. Then,
seconds before we stepped onto the coals I felt like something
had happened and just walked right across, probably no more
than six steps. I wasn’t burned at all. I remember I fell on the
ground face forward and held there kicking my feet. It was the
exhilaration of having done something so incredible.’’
New Age Fire Walking
Fire walking has been revived in the United States and Britain
as a kind of New Thought technique for raising human potential.
It is claimed that by proving that the mind can control
pain and physical reaction, individuals can liberate hidden potential
for other achievements. In the United States, Eric Best,
an industrial systems analyst, has been conducting seminars in
which students are taught to overcome their fears through fire
walking. Psychological techniques are used to prepare students
by helping them face their longstanding fears before fire walking.
Eventually the group surrounds a large bonfire that is later
dismantled and used to feed a bed of glowing coals three feet
wide and ten feet long.
The fire walkers are taught to internalize energy, to concentrate
on it, then to assure themselves that the walk is on ‘‘cool
moss.’’ They shout, ‘‘Energy in!’’ then, ‘‘Strong focus!’’ ‘‘Eyes
up!’’ and then, ‘‘Cool moss!’’ as they walk confidently over the
glowing coals (a variant final chant used by some fire walkers
is ‘‘Cool green moss!’’). Walkers are instructed not to proceed
with the ordeal unless they ‘‘feel right.’’
The technique was introduced to Britain by Hugh Bromiley,
a karate black belt and member of the British Society of Hypnotherapists,
after observing a fire-walking workshop in California.
Participants are prepared by a ‘‘Power and Personal Research
Training’’ course at which they are taught to confront
their fears and successes before walking across burning embers.
Local council authorities in London have banned fire walking,
however, and medical authorities on burns have strongly discouraged
the project.
In a valuable report on his own fire-walking experience,
parapsychologist Charles T. Tart tells how he successfully maneuvered
through the fire without injury. In his discussion of
the various theories of immunity he concludes that a key factor
is the belief of the fire walker that he or she can walk over the
coals without being burned. This belief may be rationalized in
many different ways, depending upon the disposition of the
participant and whether he holds a religious or scientific philosophy.
Tart questions the simplistic explanation of the Leidenfrost
effect and points out discrepancies in the theory based
on his own experience.
For a valuable collection of papers on fire walking, see Psi
Research (vol. 4, no. 2, 1985). For a bibliography of articles on
fire walking, see Bulletin II of the University of London, Council
for Psychical Investigation (London, 1936).
Burkan, Tolly. Guiding Yourself into a Spiritual Reality. Twin
Harte, Calif. Reunion Press, 1983.
Danforth, Loring M. Firewalking and Religious Healing The
Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement.
Princeton, N.J Princeton University Press, 1989.
Michell, John, and Robert J. M. Rickard. Phenomena A Book
of Wonders. London Thames and Hudson, 1977. Reprint, New
York Pantheon Books, 1977.
Rickard, Robert, and Richard Kelly. Photographs of the Unknown.
London Book Club Associates, 1980.
Sandwith, George, and Helen Sandwith. Research in Fiji,
Tonga & Samoa. Surrey, England Omega Press, 1954.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,
Tart, Charles T. ‘‘Firewalk.’’ Parapsychology Review 18, no. 3
(May–June 1987).
Truzzi, Marcelo. ‘‘A Bibliography on Fire-Walking.’’ Zetetic
Scholar 11 (1983) 105–07.